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Providing Essential Support for LGBTQI+ Refugees in South Africa

Providing Essential Support for LGBTQI+ Refugees in... Providing Essential Support for LGBTQI+ Refugees in...

Rainbow Railroad is dedicated to providing safety and support to at-risk LGBTQI+ individuals globally through five programs, in addition to emergency travel assistance.

One of these programs is Partnership Development, through which Rainbow Railroad directly invests in the capacity building and livelihood support of human rights defenders, grassroots organizations, and collectives in countries where LGBTQI+ individuals face forced displacement. Since 2020, Rainbow Railroad has supported over 8,890 LGBTQI+ individuals through more than 70 different partnerships. One of those partnerships is with The Fruit Basket in South Africa (TFB). 

TFB is a trans- and migrant-led organization that advocates for the social inclusion and legal recognition of LGBTQI+ refugees seeking protection in South Africa.

Thomars Shamuyarira, the founder and director of TFB, reflects on the challenges he faced as a transgender refugee in 2016, inspiring the creation of TFB:

“I wondered then how others who were more disadvantaged than I was, were surviving. I could communicate in English, I had access to the internet, I could afford to travel from one office to another, and I also had some confidence that allowed me to knock on doors and ask questions.”

Amid frustration from the lack of support available to LGBTQI+ refugees, Thomars found hope in South Africa’s openness to granting refugee status based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, LGBTQI+ refugees still faced unique challenges, including barriers to accessing employment due to systemic exclusion. 

Recognizing the urgency of these challenges, TFB is dedicated to addressing the immediate needs of the LGBTQI+ refugee community through its longstanding relief program established in 2016. As part of the program, TFB offers Chakalaka sessions — brunch gatherings where African meals are cooked and served to unite members of the LGBTQI+ migrant, refugee and asylum seeker community in Johannesburg.

Additionally, TFB provides reference letters for community members seeking resettlement support from Rainbow Railroad. 

The Fruit Basket and Rainbow Railroad partnership, launched in 2023, aims to bolster TFB’s safe house to continue providing for its residents despite increased costs. The safe house is specifically designed for new arrivals, particularly those fleeing Uganda after the implementation of draconian anti-homosexuality laws.

Reflecting on the partnership, Thomars shares,

“Rainbow Railroad offers a very important and much-needed service to the marginalized community that we serve here in South Africa.”

He also expresses a message to Rainbow Railroad supporters:

“We appreciate you. Our world needs more people like you, who support causes even when they do not affect you directly. Thank you for your humanism and ubuntu.” 

Thomars describes the day-to-day work at TFB as rewarding, reinstating hope and dignity for community members. Despite the emotional toll of hearing and witnessing the trauma experienced by the community, the impact of this work outweighs the challenges.

Contemplating the complexity and volume of this work, Thomars shares,

“It is so difficult knowing that even through all this work and effort we put in daily, some individuals have been beneficiaries of the organization since its inception. We watch people give up and return to the countries they fled from, even when the threats they escaped are still there.”

In addition to the safe house, TFB’s multifaceted support includes skills development, training, and asylum assistance workshops. Prioritizing mental health and solidarity, TFB offers workshops that provide a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community to heal and connect.

Thomars emphasizes the importance of building community:

“The Queer community is my chosen family. It is everything to me, and I will fight to death for my family. We are colorful, we are proud, we are happy, and we are loving.”

Being a small organization with two permanent staff and three volunteers doesn’t deter The Fruit Basket from having strategic aspirations.

“We want to be able to attend high-level meetings where decisions that affect the LGBTQI+ community are made and be a part of the decision-making process. We hope that one day South Africa becomes the enabling environment for our community that we all believed it was when we left everything and everyone to come and seek protection here.”